The Sony Tablet S brings a 5 megapixel back facing camera to the table, and offers auto-focus, image stabilisation, geo-tagging, face detection and high-definition video recording plus a VGA front facing camera for video calling and admiring oneself. So how does the camera stack up against the competition? Will the inclusion of photography and video capabilities let you throw away your dedicated devices? You can probably already guess the answer, but read on anyway, you may or may not be surprised.
The pre-installed camera interface is relatively simple, a row of settings to the left, shutter key on the right, viewfinder in the centre and a film strip of your latest shots on the bottom. The film strip is scrollable and tapping on a photo will bring you to the camera gallery, where you can take a closer look at the photos you’ve taken. You also have quick access to settings like resolution, digital zoom, store location, a toggle for switching between photo and video mode and another for front and back camera. Hitting the arrow key on the settings column brings up an additional four options, exposure, white balance, screen mode and focus mode. There isn’t a whole lot of functionality built into the default camera app, but there are plenty of third-party apps out there that can add additional features like HDR, panorama or ‘hipster’ effects.
The following comparisons are between my phone (HTC Desire), which I always have on me; my camcorder (Sony HDR-CX350), which I never have on me; and of course the Sony Tablet S. All photos are shot at 5 megapixel and should be identical in resolution, except for the camcorder, which decided to shoot in wide-angle (though still at 5 megapixel). Click on the photos below to open gallery view and ESC to return.
Photo 1: Taken outside in good lighting on a stable surface, you can see the raw quality of the camera, its lens and the image sensor. The Tablet S has a rather cool colour with the slightly bluish tinge, compared to the yellow tone of the phone and the less pronounced warm hue of the camcorder. Colour reproduction is vibrant and lively, almost on par with the camcorder and miles ahead of the phone. The sharpness seen in all of them can be attributed to the stable surface on which shot was set up on.
Photo 2: This is meant to be a more realistic representation of real life usage and was taken without support from a standing position. Surprisingly, the weight of the tablet kept any shaking to a minimum as did the usage of both hands. The tablet’s cool hue has reduced somewhat compared to the previous shot, though it retains the excellent colour reproduction and contrast. The sharpness is almost on par with the camcorder while the latter produced a seemingly over saturated result, a stark contrast to the grey toned photo from the phone. Sony’s tablet produced a perfect balance between the exaggerated saturation of the camcorder and the lifeless representation of the phone and maintains its sharpness with the automatic stabilization.
Photo 3: Low light conditions are usually a nightmare for cameras, especially for those without flash. To maintain an equal footing, all devices took their photos without the aid on any extra lighting. As you can see, the tablet maintained a surprising amount of colour detail in its picture, though at the cost of a rather noisy execution. The auto stabilization prevented any major dramas with the long exposure time and the contrast is surprisingly good compared with the other two. The camcorder just barely makes out the emu’s head in the back while the phone completely ignores its existence. Of course, a quick post processing is enough to fix the camcorder’s dark image (seen below), but the Tablet S is to be commended on its vibrant colour reproduction, despite the grainy output.
The tablet’s compression was not as aggressive as my phone but more so than my camcorder, though strangely, artifacts are more prominent on the camcorder and less so on the phone (see comparison above). For the most part, the pictures have a decent quality versus size balance and if shot under good conditions, can be comparable to a low to mid-ranged point and shoot. That said, the size and weight of a tablet and the convenience of pulling out a compact camera far outweigh any advantage the Sony Tablet S may have had in the photography department and that’s even before we consider low light situations and its lack of flash. So whilst it may perform acceptably under optimal conditions, real life usage may very well differ.
The default video recorder is a simple, no frills app that just does what it’s meant to do. In other words, there are no extra features. If you are looking for snazzy filters that make your video look like it was filmed in the 70’s, then you are going to be disappointed, because the features of the pre-installed video recorder would make the Gmail app look bloated by comparison. There are a grand total of four options you can choose from, quality, exposure, white balance and time lapse interval. Time lapse interval is an interesting option though as it lets you take time lapse photos and combine them into a video, but the time between each photo is set at predefined intervals between 1 and 10 seconds and can’t be changed. Way to ruin a potentially cool feature.
On the highest setting, Sony’s tablet is capable of filming 1280×720 videos at 25fps with AVC codec for video and AAC for audio in an mp4 container. Despite a maximum of 38fps in parts of the clip and overall bit rate exceeding 6000 Kbps, performance is largely underwhelming due to the fairly aggressive compression algorithm that Sony has opted for. You can see in the video above, compression artifacts occur frequently and are most noticeable in areas of changing brightness and colours. The video lacks detail and the mediocre contrast combined with a 96Kbps single channel audio stream results in an overall subpar visual experience. But hey, at least it’s smooth.
Front facing camera
The front facing camera provides acceptable quality for Skype or other video calls and not much else. The only other time you may want to use it is if you think you have something between your teeth and don’t have a mirror handy. Even then, you may not be able to make out that piece of spinach wedged in your teeth. Trust me, I tried.
The verdict? Unless you’re comfortable with taking photos with a 9.4” tablet, a small point and shoot should achieve noticeably better results in almost all situations. Besides the awkwardness of pulling out a tablet for a shot, there’s good chance the situation does not have the optimal lighting for a useable photo. That and the inability of the video recorder to record basic sight and sound without processing the detail out of them, does not bode well for the Sony Tablet S as an image capturing device. So if you have already thrown out the digital camera and camcorder, dig through the bin and fish them out, because even with the Tablet S around, neither of them are going anywhere.